14th Aug 2022

MEPs push commission for equal pay action

Socialist MEPs have called on EU social affairs commissioner Vladimir Spidla to examine EU equal pay rules in light of a controversial European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling, but the commission is not keen to act for now.

In a letter seen by EUobserver, Hungarian and Danish socialist MEPs Zita Gurmai and Paul Nyrup Rasmussen "urge" social affairs commissioner Vladimir Spidla to take "immediate action to assess and remedy a potentially major problem" in Europe.

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"We are alarmed that taking maternity leave may be a cause of unequal pay," they add, after the EU's top court last week stated that employers can pay women less than men because they take more maternity leave and have diminished 'seniority.'

"It [the judgement] undermines important European policy objectives aimed at increasing Europe's demographic challenges," the MEPs' letter says, pointing out that the ruling could also discourage men from taking paternity leave.

Mr Rasmussen and Ms Gurmai asked Mr Spidla to "urgently examine the legislation and propose any necessary changes to tackle discrimination against workers taking parental leave."

But Mr Spidla's spokeswoman told EUobserver that while the commissioner "is in general fully committed to reduce the gender pay gap" and agrees with most of the arguments in the letter, it is not up to him to interpret EU law.

"It is up to the court to interpret the acquis communitaire [the EU's 80,000 page legal rulebook]," she stated, adding that it is up to the member states to take measures on paternal leave, but saying the issue will be mentioned in a commission paper on demography due on Thursday (12 October).

Paternity leave

The ECJ decision on the case has been interpreted differently by the media, with some hailing it as a boost for women's careers while others call it a leap backwards to the dark ages of sexual discrimination.

But the head of the European Women's Laywers' Association, Leena Linnainmaa, says that things would be different if more men took some time off to be with their children.

"This would be an irrelevant discussion if men took paternity leave," she stated.

The ECJ ruling "is written in a neutral way," she explained, adding that "when assuming that life is the same for women and men, the outcome is not always very balanced."

Ms Linnainmaa explained that the association "strongly" recommends the EU to promote men's right to take paternity leave – and for men to actually use that right – across the 25 member states.

The Cadman case

The case at the EU's top court was brought by UK health inspector Bernadette Cadman, who argued that domestic duties such as pregnancy and maternity leave often dictate the length of time women can work - leading to diminished "seniority" - and called for employers to provide special justification for paying men more.

She had joined the UK Health and Safety Executive in 1990 as a trainee and within six years she had worked her way up to become 'principle inspector'.

But in 2001, Ms Cadman realised that she was paid up to €13,000 less a year than three of her male colleagues, even though they all held the same position.

Ms Cadman took her employer to court and won her case in an employment tribunal in 2002. Later, an employment appeal tribunal backed her employer, which then led Ms Cadman to take the case to the Court of Appeal in London.

The Court of Appeal sent the matter to the ECJ for an interpretation of European law and the case will now continue to unfold in the UK under media scrutiny.

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